MIAMI – The Coast Guard said Tuesday it has stepped up sea and air patrols in response to a possible increase in the flow of illegal immigrants from Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba.
The increase was announced as 19 Haitians were sent back home. They were the only ones who failed to get ashore when an overcrowded wooden freighter carrying more than 225 Haitians ran aground in Miami one week ago.
"We are preparing just in case — better to be safe than sorry," Luis Diaz, a Coast Guard spokesman in Miami, said of the increased interdiction efforts. "We don't want to see more boats like that. The trip is extremely dangerous."
Diaz wouldn't give details on the increased interdiction. The Coast Guard regularly patrols the Windward Pass off western Haiti, the Old Bahama Channel between Haiti and Florida, and the Straits of Florida separating Florida, Cuba and the Bahamas.
It is normal U.S. policy to repatriate all immigrants picked up at sea, after brief shipboard interviews by immigration officials.
The 19 immigrants turned over to Haitian officials Tuesday had been held on a Coast Guard cutter since being taken into custody on Oct. 29.
"That is really a travesty of justice because their reasons for leaving Haiti have not changed, whether they arrived on land or not," said Marleine Bastien, a spokeswoman for Haitian Women of Miami.
Haitian groups throughout south Florida organized more protests Tuesday after the Coast Guard announced the repatriation. Demonstrations have taken place daily since the Haitians were detained.
The other immigrants aboard the freighter, all Haitians except for three people from the Dominican Republic, made it ashore and remain in detention. They await asylum hearings, except for six Haitians accused of running the smuggling operation.
The federal government changed its detention policy on Haitian refugees last December to discourage a feared mass exodus. Before the policy change, Haitian immigrants applying for asylum were released into the community while their petitions were processed.
Haitians arriving since December, however, are kept in custody until they receive asylum or, more likely, are deported.